Review: Beneath (2013)

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Cast: Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy
Director: Larry Fessenden
Country: USA
Genre: Horror | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Beneath is now open in limited release and on VOD

Maybe Larry Fessenden missed The Cabin in the Woods. It’s hard to say whether Beneath, his low-key lake-set latest, would have appeared quite as generic before Goddard’s film came along; what’s certain is that it seems awfully old-fashioned in its wake. It’s not that the movie lacks invention—Fessenden deploys tropes knowingly and with a healthy dose of self-awareness—it’s just that it’s not nearly inventive enough, particularly in a world where we’ve seen the genre turned on its head and shaken for small change, flipped back-to-front and inside-out, and wrung like a wet sponge.

Not so much cabin-in-the-woods as boat-on-the-lake, its Lifeboat meets Creature from the Black Lagoon premise doesn’t manage to mask the same old cardboard cut-out characters at its core.

beneath_2013_3The blame is only partially to be laid at Fessenden’s feet, of course; more at fault are the film’s scribes, whose sole shared prior writing credit in 2008’s made-for-TV Flu Bird Horror goes a way to explaining the flimsy familiarity in which Beneath comes bathed. Not so much cabin-in-the-woods as boat-on-the-lake, its Lifeboat meets Creature from the Black Lagoon premise doesn’t manage to mask the same old cardboard cut-out characters at its core. Expendable teens the lot, they’re efficiently—if not endearingly—played by a host of relative newcomers who fit their swimsuits better than their roles. Two are brothers; two, at least, are lovers; one has glasses; another has more hair than sense: all, in every way, are people we’ve met in movies before.

It’s not hard to imagine Fessenden adopting the script solely to some subversive end; his film has hints of insurgent intent, a frisson of self-referentiality here, a flutter of self-awareness there. What it doesn’t have, at least in any evident capacity, is a point; whatever winking wherewithal each new archetype comes cloaked in, it carries out its ascribed function nonetheless. It’s a curiously self-loathing sentiment, Fessenden clearly calling out each and every trope he puts on screen, yet continuing to use them for their precise purpose. What a ridiculous conceit, the film seems to sneer, before riding its coattails right to the next scene. How stupid this is, the silly creature design screams, all the while using that creature to steer the plot toward its entirely unsurprising end.

What it doesn’t have, at least in any evident capacity, is a point; whatever winking wherewithal each new archetype comes cloaked in, it carries out its ascribed function nonetheless.

beneath_2013_4Like a tug of war between teams of identical strength, Beneath is a film that pulls in opposite directions and never ends up moving at all. Enacting their haplessly uninteresting horror-drama, the cast seem entirely at odds with—maybe even unaware of—Fessenden’s pseudo-comedic, self-referential streak. Oddest of all is the presence of a film-within-a-film, one of the character’s constant use of a video camera seeming to offer—as well as the opportunity for an alternate angle—a meta-commentary on the movie’s own construction. But no, like all-too many of the elements in this strange stew of old stereotypes and new ideas the camera becomes but another plot point, its possibilities of transcending the genre framework dropped in favour of perpetuating it.

Like infinitely many of its similarly-plotted brethren, Beneath is a bad horror: nicely shot, acceptably acted, but undoubtedly bad. What’s at once most interesting and most beguiling about it is that it knows this to be true, and yet does nothing much about it. Everything about Fessenden’s direction inventively admits uninventiveness: this is a film that artfully accepts its own artlessness, showing its potential to be something better without ever really striving to realise it. There’s the sense throughout of a director too bored by his material to find a way to work with it, too frustrated by its meaninglessness to invest it with new meaning. That frustration carries: Fessenden seems to hate his film; if its own director doesn’t believe in it, how can anyone else be expected to?

[notification type=”star”]40/100 ~ BAD. Everything about Fessenden’s direction inventively admits uninventiveness: Beneath is a film that artfully accepts its own artlessness, showing its potential to be something better without ever really striving to realise it.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.